Tag Archives: Well-being

Being a carer: a sizeable problem

Millions of people combine work with caring responsibilities – looking after an older relative, a disabled child or a partner, for example. But what are the effects on the health of those who do this? Rebecca Lacey and colleagues from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have found that younger women and those who juggle working and caring are at higher risk of being obese.

The number of people who care for others without pay is huge – and it’s growing. In the United Kingdom there are more than seven million such carers – around one in five adults. About six in 10 of them are women.

We know from existing studies that becoming a carer can mean having to stop work – but an ageing society, extended working lives and cuts in social care funding mean those doing this unpaid caring are also increasingly often juggling their caring responsibilities and paid work.

Caring is linked to behaviour which leads to health risks, as well as to poorer health. Carers can suffer from the deterioration of their relationships with those they care for – particularly when the person needing to be cared for has dementia. They have to juggle caring and other responsibilities, resulting in little time for themselves: this means they may have less time to exercise and to eat healthily. They can also suffer additional financial burdens. All this can lead to measurably higher levels of stress – for example, research has shown that carers have higher levels of cortisol, which can cause the body to lay down fat. We wanted to know more about whether particular groups of carers were at increased risk of being obese.

We were able to use a major study, Understanding Society, which has followed a representative sample of 40,000 UK households since 2009 and which is also linked to another study, the British Household Panel Survey, which first started in 1991.

This enabled us, for the first time, to look at obesity amongst UK carers from the age of 16 onwards: previous studies had only looked at older carers or carers of those with specific conditions such as dementia.

We had information on 9,421 participants who had also been visited by nurses for health checks between 2009 and 2012, of whom 1,282 were carers. We were able to look at factors such as Body Mass Index (BMI) alongside whether participants had an illness or disability, their education, occupation, household income, socioeconomic position, partnership status and whether they were parents. We looked at how many people they cared for, and for how many hours in the week. And we also looked at whether they were also doing paid work, and if this was full or part-time.

Nurse visits were used to measure participants’ weight, percentage of body fat and BMI.

Women as carers

Roughly in line with national figures, we found women were more likely to be carers and to put in more hours of care each week. Female carers were more likely than their male counterparts to have children at home and also to be working outside the home – this may be because male carers tend to be older.

When we looked at whether men’s caring was linked to obesity, we did find an association – men who were carers had higher BMIs and larger waists. However, once we had taken differences in age into account we didn’t find this statistically significant.

But when we looked at women, the story was rather different. In contrast to men, women who were carers were significantly more likely to have larger waists or a higher percentage of body fat. And there was a particularly strong effect when it came to women who combined caring with full-time work: amongst young women aged 16-44 who were in full time work, those who were carers had waists 4cm larger, on average, than those who were not carers. Those who were caring and working beyond the age of 65 were also larger, with higher proportions of body fat and bigger waists.

Why is this? Why would women’s health potentially suffer a greater adverse effect than men’s from being a carer? It seems the strains on them may be greater – younger women may be working outside the home and may also be caring for children, for instance. They may lose touch with friends who have more freedom to enjoy leisure time. Carers are likely to have less time to spend exercising or to prepare healthy and nutritious meals – and those combining several caring roles with working life are likely to be particularly hard-hit.

This matters, not least because the scale of the issue is so great – and because the UK relies so heavily on its citizens to look after their own – carers have been estimated to save the UK economy £132 billion per year. We need to make this largely hidden army of unpaid carers a public health priority.

Informal caregiving and markers of adiposity in the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Rebecca Lacey, Anne McMunn and Elizabeth Webb of the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London.

Use it or lose it: fact or fiction?

We’ve probably all heard the phrase: “Use it or lose it” –  the belief that if we don’t keep our brains active, particularly as we grow older, our mental abilities will fade. Or that, conversely, if we stay mentally active we can hold back the inevitable decline that comes with ageing. But is that really true, and how might we differ from one another in this respect? A new study by Baowen Xue and colleagues from the RenEWL project at UCL tests the hypothesis.

If, as the theory goes, a lack of mentally challenging activity can lead to a loss of ability, then retirement might increase that risk. And previous studies suggest that may be the case – we know that those who retire later have better cognitive function and a lower risk of dementia.

In our study we set out to learn whether the sorts of activities we all do at work could benefit older peoples’ memories, and whether certain factors could help to preserve their abilities.  There’s a theory that some of us build up ‘reserves’ which can provide us with a buffer against later decline: if we have lots of mental stimulation as children, for instance, or if we have mentally demanding jobs as adults.

We wanted to test the ‘use it or lose it’ theory, and also to find out whether those who work in high-grade jobs might be at lower risk of cognitive decline after retirement.

The subjects for our research were 3433 people who participated in the Whitehall II Study, which followed a cohort of civil servants for more than 30 years, beginning when they were aged between 35 and 55.

Cognitive ability tests

We were able to look at measurements of the participants’ cognitive abilities from up to 14 years before they retired and for up to 14 years afterwards.

The participants were tested on four different measures. Their verbal memory was assessed through a test in which they listened to a list of words and were then given two minutes to write down as many as possible. Verbal fluency was judged in two ways – participants were asked to write as many words beginning with ‘S’ as they could within one minute – ‘phonemic’ fluency – and also to recall as many animal names as possible within the same time – ‘semantic’ fluency. Finally, abstract reasoning – the ability to identify patterns and rules in data and to use them to solve problems – was measured through a four-part test known as AH4.

We found that participants’ abilities decreased over time on all four measures.  But the decline in verbal memory scores was 38 per cent faster after retirement than it was before, even after taking account of that age-related deterioration. Those who worked in higher-grade jobs also had some protection while they were still working, but this effect was lost when they retired.

Trajectories of verbal memory by employment grade

However, while retirement had a significant impact on verbal memory, particularly for those in more senior jobs, it did not make a difference when it came to the other tests we looked at – verbal fluency and abstract reasoning. Nor were there any significant differences in verbal memory decline between men and women in our sample.

Our findings are consistent with the theory of ‘mental retirement’ – suggesting that the work environment can be more mentally stimulating than the leisure environment as a retiree. As well as losing the direct stimulation they get from work, retirees may also suffer from indirect effects – from losing the need for self-discipline and organisation, for example, as well as from having fewer opportunities to communicate and collaborate with others. For instance, social networks could be more extensive during employment than they are later in life.

The finding that employees in high grade jobs suffer smaller declines before retirement also points to a wider significance – all of us can benefit, in terms of memory, from mentally stimulating activities.

So, do our findings support the ‘use it or lose it’ theory? Yes, they do. They suggest that failing to keep mentally active may lead to faster cognitive decline after retirement.

Effect of retirement on cognitive function: the Whitehall II cohort study, by Baowen Xue, Dorina Cadar, Maria Fleischmann, Stephen Stansfeld, Ewan Carr,Mika Kivimäki, Anne McMunn and Jenny Head, is published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

Working after retirement age: who benefits?

Recent reforms have made it unlawful for employers to force their workers to retire. So what are the reasons why some people stay on after state pension age while others choose to leave? How do those decisions affect quality of life for those who stay, and for those who go? A study by Giorgio Di Gessa and colleagues at King’s College London and the University of Manchester sheds new light on the issue.

We know that more of us are working after we reach retirement age – but until now we haven’t known much about how people make that decision, or about what effect it has on their sense of wellbeing afterwards.

In our research, we used English data from a panel study of older people to find out more about who chooses to stay on in work and why. We then went on to ask whether those who chose to work felt differently about their lives when compared with those who felt they had to work.

We took a representative sample of 2,500 men aged 65 to 74 and women aged 60 to 69 who had previously been in work, and we found one fifth of them still had paid jobs. Of those, two thirds had chosen to continue to work because they enjoyed their jobs or because they wanted to keep fit and active. The other third said they worked for financial reasons: either they couldn’t afford to retire or they wanted to improve their pension provision for later.

We placed the retired respondents into three groups: Those who had had a ‘normal’ retirement when they became eligible for a state pension (28 per cent), those who felt they had to retire because of ill-health or redundancy (2 per cent); and those who retired voluntarily – because they could afford to do so or because they wanted to spend more time with their family, for instance (28 per cent).

Quality of life

On average, those who had retired experienced a lower quality of life, when measured on the CASP-19 scale for older people. The highest quality of life was reported by those who had stayed in work voluntarily, while the lowest was reported by those who had retired involuntarily. The gap in quality of life between these two groups is similar to the one observed between respondents who said they had a long-standing illness and those who did not. As expected, respondents who were financially better off also had higher quality of life scores.

When we considered changes in these CASP-19 scores over time, we found that on average people experienced a drop in their quality of life over a six-year period between two ‘waves’ of the study: about a quarter experienced a decrease of 5 points or more whereas just over 16% experienced an improvement of 5 or more points. Those working voluntarily experienced a slight increase in their quality of life when they eventually retired. On the other hand, the wellbeing of those who were working out of necessity did not improve after retirement.

Health benefits

As one might expect, the scores improved among those whose health got better after retirement, and worsened among those whose health deteriorated.

It’s worth noting that our study sample is skewed towards the more advantaged – the proportion with no qualifications is significantly lower than in the census. It is therefore likely that our study underestimates the percentage of people who work out of financial necessity.

What does our study tell us about working after retirement age? In particular, it reminds us how important it is for people to feel they have control over these key decisions about their lives. Those who continue working because they have to have lower quality of life than those who continue working because they want to – and even once those people have retired, this wellbeing gap is likely to persist.

We know that people who experience a higher quality of life tend to be healthier and to live longer.

Government initiatives aimed at helping workers maintain control over their decisions are worthwhile – but policymakers should also consider how people might be given more support throughout their lives to protect their financial and personal wellbeing if they do have to work for longer.

Further information

The decision to work after State Pension Age and how it affects Quality of Life: Evidence from a 6-year English panel study is a research paper by Giorgio Di Gessa of King’s College London, Laurie Corna of King’s College London, Debora Price of the University of Manchester and Karen Glaser of King’s College London. It is published in the journal Age & Ageing.

Never too early to intervene to get us working longer

Working for longer is something we are all having to get our heads around. It’s certainly a priority for the Government, which wants to encourage more older people into satisfying jobs that will help them stay happy and healthy as they age. For older people already in good jobs that they enjoy, who have been fit and active for most or all their life, this could be a great opportunity for them and their families. Of course that’s not the case for everyone. Dr Charlotte Clark has been looking at what having poor mental health as a child could mean for our working life in our mid fifties. Here she explains why policy makers and businesses need to pay close attention to the mental wellbeing of the nation if they want to extend people’s working lives successfully.

Working beyond traditional retirement age has been the focus of much attention in recent years as policy makers, businesses and working people across the UK get used to the idea that more of us need to work for longer to take account of the fact that more and more of us are living longer and that this reality comes at a cost.

As things stand, by their mid fifties, many people are not in work because of early retirement, long-term sickness or disability, being or becoming unemployed or because they are long term homemakers. So the onus for working longer tends to fall on those who stay employed through all or most of their lives. But could more be done to encourage and support those most likely not to be working at 55 to do so and then to continue to do so?

Looking right across people’s lives to track what may have influenced a person to leave or not be working at 55 provides us with a much clearer and more nuanced picture than a simple snapshot in time. We wanted to see whether having poor mental health as a child or as an adult might be an important part of that picture and give us some ideas for interventions that could extend the working lives of this group of people in a way that would benefit them and society more widely.

Increasing psychological support

It’s fair to say that the Government’s ambitions to get more people working for longer have been laid out quite clearly already, as has their commitment to putting people’s physical and mental health on an equal footing. Saying that, their commitment has been called into question recently in a report from The King’s Fund, which says parity is a long way off.

When it comes to specific groups not working, the Department for Work and Pensions has tended to focus its attention on benefit claimants rather than other groups who, for one reason or another may choose not to work – housewives and husbands for example.

Government initiatives to try to help people with mental health problems find work have included the ‘Improving Access to Psychosocial Therapies’ (IAPT) programme, which has increased provision of therapies for benefit claimants with depressive and anxiety disorders.

Evaluations of IAPT suggest that ‘Nationally, of [adult] people that finished a course of treatment in IAPT, 45% recover. . . and a further 16% show reliable improvement’. Encouraging results that have led to modest increases in employment, and it’s hoped there will be more positive news on this front.

However, things don’t look quite so encouraging when it comes to younger people with mental health problems and that’s what our research is shining a spotlight on. It’s also an area we believe should be a focus for policy makers and those working with young people including parents and schools. After all, successfully extending people’s working lives can only be done once they successfully enter and then remain in employment. This is less likely for youngsters with poor mental health.

55-year survey

We used information from the National Child Development Study which has followed the lives of thousands of people born in 1958, and collected detailed information about their lives and circumstances.

This included their employment situation and, first and foremost, we were able to see that, at age 55, nearly 19 per cent of the 9,000 participants in the study were not working: 2.8 per cent were unemployed, 5.2 per cent were permanently sick, 3.3 per cent were retired and 7.5 per cent were homemaker/other.

From a very young age, the study also collected information on whether the individuals in the study exhibited signs of depression or worry, whether they were hostile, disobedient or aggressive.

Even when we took account of a wide range of other things such as whether they suffered poor mental health as young or older adults, numbers of other children in the household, whether their partner was employed, qualifications etc. the association with problems as a child were still really strong.

Drilling down into whether those mental health issues were ‘internalized’ or ‘externalized’, we were able to see that those who were depressed or anxious as children were about one and a half times more likely to be unemployed or permanently sick as their peers without problems.

It was a similar story for those who had shown externalised signs such as aggression. They were more than twice as likely to be unemployed or permanently sick, and also more likely to fall into the homemakers/other category too.

Interestingly there was no strong link between poor mental health in childhood and taking early retirement or being employed part-time.

Children’s mental health

Of course there is a lot more at play in children’s lives than we have taken account of in this study. Nevertheless, it is clear from our research that addressing the mental health problems of the very youngest in society could and should be an area for focus and schools, together with parents and those with a responsibility for the wellbeing of young children have key roles to play here.

It seems it is never too early to intervene proactively to try to help young people get and stay on a healthy happy path that will lead to them a productive and satisfying working life that extends well beyond the age of 55. Equally, given that people identifying themselves as ‘homemakers’ rather than unemployed are the largest group not working at age 55, policy makers could consider ways to get this economically inactive group into the workplace, in tandem with its efforts to support the mental health of those people on benefits.

There is also a message here for policy makers about just how important it is to make those promises about parity of esteem between mental and physical health a reality sooner rather than later.

Impact of childhood and adulthood psychological health on labour force participation and exit in later life is research by Charlotte Clark and colleagues and is published in Psychological Medicine. The research is part of the ESRC funded Research on Extended Working Lives (RenEWL) programme at UCL.

 

Staying at work longer – a matter of geography?

There are lots of reasons why people end their working lives early, and the relationships between those reasons are complex. We know, for instance, that if you’re a carer for someone close to you, if you’re unwell yourself or if you don’t have higher level qualifications then you’re more likely to stop working sooner. But how does the area in which you live affect your prospects of working for longer? What if you live in an area of high unemployment, for instance? A new report by George Holley-Moore and colleagues at the International Longevity Centre – UK highlights how people in such areas are less likely to extend their working lives – even when those other factors are taken into account.

All too often the debate about how best to help people to work into later life stops at physical health. But research from the renEWL project suggests there is much more to be considered. In a new report, Working for Everyone – Addressing Barriers and Inequalities in the Working Lives Agenda, we look at these complex relationships – and we find there’s a great deal more policymakers could be doing to help.

Interlinking factors such as physical and mental health, working conditions, family life and lifestyle are all important. And it’s vital that regions should use their devolved powers to ensure that people in all parts of the population have the opportunity to extend their working lives.

The importance of geography

But how does where you live affect the length of your working life? We know older workers living in areas of high unemployment tend to leave work earlier: A study by Emily Murray and others looked at a one per cent sample of the population, aged between 40 and 69 and working in 2001, and at the same sample again 10 years later. Using local area statistics on unemployment, it mapped whether they left work, and their reasons for leaving, against the level of joblessness in their area.

It found that people who rated their health as poor in 2001 were almost six times more likely not to be in work 10 years later.

Thinking about this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that older workers in areas of high unemployment were less likely to be in work 10 years on – after all, if you live in an area with high unemployment you’re more likely to suffer from a long-term health issue. And that’s bound to affect your ability to work. Furthermore, if you have poor health earlier in life you are more likely to be sick or disabled later in life.

But was there a geographical factor even after these health inequalities were taken into account? Murray and colleagues found that even those in good health were more likely to be out of work a decade on if they lived in an area of high unemployment – that is to say, this economic factor operates separately from all those other things that can affect the length of a person’s working life. People in poor health were more likely to be out of work regardless of where they lived.

Evidence-based planning

It’s clear that there is a need for strong regional and national planning on these inter-related areas of work, health and geography. Creating policies tailored to the unique pressures faced by the local population will be necessary to address the scale of the problem:

National Government should focus infrastructure spending on areas of higher unemployment with a view to increasing job opportunities and making employment more accessible for older workers.

Regions need to use devolved power to tailor their own integrated strategies to enable fuller working lives.

Local authorities should be given power and funding to coordinate local partnerships that tackle employment challenges. These should include councils, businesses, health and social care providers and charities: supporting fuller working lives in at-risk areas would require a joined-up approach that targets the various at-risk groups.

Fundamentally, policy must move away from focusing exclusively on physical health conditions. We need a holistic approach which incorporates physical and psychological health, growing care needs and socio-economic disparity if we are to extend working life for everyone.

 

A question of support: working longer and what works

As more of us work for longer, it’s important to recognise the needs of older workers: and that includes the fact that as we age we are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses. To what extent do our working conditions affect our decisions about whether or not to continue in a job despite having a chronic disease? Maria Fleischmann, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, has been asking what might help to prolong working life for older people. Could factors such as having supportive colleagues and managers, or a clear understanding of who does what, make a difference?

There is strong evidence that people with long-term illnesses leave work early. While three quarters of healthy European 50-somethings have jobs, the figure from those with chronic disease is much lower. Among those with one condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the employment level is around 70 per cent – and for those with two or more that drops to around 50 per cent. Conversely, those who are able to stay well are significantly more likely to continue working beyond pensionable age.

As our working lives grow longer, it’s important to acknowledge that older workers with chronic diseases may have different needs from those who are well – they may not be able to work such long hours, for instance.

So, what are the factors that can make a difference? We know, for instance, that people are likely to remain in work for longer if they have a high level of control over their own hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are more likely both to become unwell and to leave work early.

Deciding to stay on at work

But what about the factors that are harder to see? What about a worker’s sense of his or her own job stability, or of how harmonious the relationships are between co-workers? Does it help if an employee feels he or she generally knows who does what, or how to respond to a given situation? These types of factors – collectively known as ‘psychosocial factors’ – are also believed to affect peoples’ decisions about whether to stay on at work.

We used data from the Whitehall II study, which has been following the lives, work histories and health experiences of just over 10,000 London-based civil servants since the mid-1980s, when they were all aged 35-55. We looked at the participants in mid-life, around 14 years before retirement age, to see how factors such as levels of autonomy and of support from supervisors or co-workers might affect their decisions if they became ill with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke or malignant cancer.

And we found that while good ‘psycho-social’ working conditions were helpful generally in supporting workers to stay on in their jobs, they didn’t appear to make any extra difference for those who became ill.

The participants in the Whitehall II study were asked questions such as: ‘Do you have to do the same thing over and over again?’ and ‘Do you have a choice in deciding how to do your work?’ They were also asked whether they felt they had good support from colleagues and superiors and how demanding they felt their job was. They were also asked to describe their level of education, their mental health and whether they had a partner who worked.

We were able to use their answers to assess whether these factors made a difference when they developed illnesses later in life.

Chronic illness

We could see that six out of 10 participants left work between the first phase of the study in 1985 and the last one used for this study, in 2007-9. During the same period the proportion suffering from chronic illness had increased from less than two per cent to almost 30 per cent.

So why had they left, and how might those ‘psychosocial’ working conditions have affected those decisions?

Among the whole group of participants, we found clear evidence that those who felt they had reasons to be happy in their work were more likely to stay on. Specifically, those who felt they were using a wide range of job skills – known as skill discretion – and those who felt they had good social support at work were more likely to stay on for longer.

However, we did not find evidence that those ‘psychosocial’ factors would make more of a difference in whether or not a worker stayed on if he or she were chronically unwell. Or rather, good working conditions were equally important for workers both ill and well.

So, we know that good social and psychological conditions at work are likely to be helpful in keeping employees at work as their careers near their end. And we know that chronic illness is a major reason why people leave work early. But from our study, we cannot say that such good working practices will be a particular deciding factor for those who become unwell.

How and why people leave work

There were some interesting factors in our results: first, we were able to look at the different ways in which people left their jobs, and the reasons why they did so. So those who used a wide range of skills had a reduced risk of leaving work earlier through retirement or ill-health, but this was not related to the risk of leaving work earlier through unemployment; while those who had good social support had a reduced risk of leaving earlier through ill health or unemployment, but not so much when we looked at leaving earlier through retirement.

And while previous studies had tended to measure working conditions at the time of leaving, ours looked at those conditions several years beforehand.

There is certainly scope for more detailed research on this issue – and there is plenty of reason for both researchers and policy advisors to continue to focus on how employers can help chronically ill workers to stay in their jobs.

Can favourable psychosocial working conditions in midlife moderate the risk of work exit for chronically ill workers? A 20-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study is research by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Stephen A Stansfeld, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head. It is published in the BMJ Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and is part of the renEWL project on Extended Working Lives.

Unretirement: can it be a positive story for all?

“When I was sitting around at home I would just get grumpy. I’ve also lost five stone since working here. This is like a vitality camp for me.” Retired British Transport Police inspector Brendan McCambridge, 56, interviewed in The Telegraph, describes how his new role at Waitrose has improved his life. He is one of the one in four retired British people who return to paid work, a phenomenon called “unretirement”. New research, led by Dr Loretta G. Platts from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, explores who ends up unretiring. In this blog post, she considers the implications for individuals, business and policy of retired older people returning to paid work.

Retirement can be an abrupt and one-way change marking the end of paid work and the start of a time of leisure. But people’s lives often don’t look like this. People may gradually retire over a period of time, or even unretire, returning to paid work after retiring. We found that around one in four retirees in the UK returns to paid work, mostly within five years of retiring.

Our information came from the longitudinal Understanding Society data and its predecessor the British Household Panel Survey. We followed more than 2000 50–69-year-olds through the 1990s and 2000s. Participants were defined as unretiring if they reported retiring and later returned to paid employment, or began full-time work following a period of semi-retirement.

While all sorts of people unretire, men are more likely to unretire than women, as are people in good health and those with post-16 qualifications. Unretirees are also more likely to have a partner in paid work. After ten years, a retiree’s chances of taking up paid work are low.

What motivates unretirement?

Unretirement was a positive experience for Brendan McCambridge. Having a job helps to stay mentally and physically active, provides a meaningful activity, and unretirees often appreciate the social side of paid work. Some may appreciate the extra money earned which supplements a pension and provides funds for little extras. For others, earning money is an important part of the decision to unretire.

Our findings suggest that financial factors play a role in the decision to return to paid work. Retirees paying off a mortgage are more likely to unretire than those who already own their home outright. Unretirees may wish to prepare financially for retirement or to supplement a pension. With a basic state pension of £122.30 per week for people who retired before 6th April 2016, some people may have found a new job because they could not afford to retire.

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, now director of policy at Royal London, contends that some retirees may have little other option than to get a job. In an interview for People Management, Webb noted that although many of those heading back to work after retirement do so because they “miss the stimulation and social contact”, there is a “real danger” that a whole generation of people will be unable to retire in the first place because they have not managed to save a big enough pension pot.

He says: “If employers do not address this issue they could find themselves with an unhappy older workforce that does not want to work but cannot afford to stop.”

Why retire and then unretire?

Some people may unretire as a result of finding out that they like being retired a lot less than they thought they would. Researchers call this a “retirement shock”, in which recent retirees, just like Brendan McCambridge, discover that they do not like their new lifestyle.

Others may have known all along that they wanted to remain in paid work, but were unable to. More than one million people over 50 are out of work for reasons beyond their control and would like to be in paid work if the appropriate opportunities were available. Some people may be forced out of work directly or indirectly as a result of age-based stereotypes, in particular through not being offered training programmes to learn new skills, or from their updated skills being undervalued.

In their second Missing Million report, Business in the Community has argued that far too many older people are being denied the chance to enjoy meaningful employment in later life and calls for stronger age discrimination legislation to tackle this.

Employers of older people also often deny them the flexibility they require to stay in paid work. Workers aged between 50 and 69 years are more likely than other age groups to want to work fewer hours than they currently do, even if this were for less pay. Around 8 per cent of workers in their 50s are working more than 45 hours per week while also being in ill health. Such older workers, locked into working long hours, may retire from jobs because they do not offer sufficient flexibility of working times.

Retirees may then take a more suitable job if it comes up, or negotiate more suitable working times later on if their former employer asks them to come back. Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Chartered Institute for Professional Development believes that simple adjustments to working times or job roles could be the key to employers attracting and retaining a “significant talent pool” of older workers who can contribute to the success of the organisation.

Does everybody get to unretire if they want to?

While people in financial straits may be wanting to unretire, we found they did not necessarily manage to. People who were struggling to make ends meet were not more likely to unretire than people in a more comfortable financial situation.

Similarly, those who had lower earnings before retirement were not more likely to unretire. The reason is probably that it is harder for people in a precarious financial situation to find a suitable or good quality job.

These findings are worrying in terms of the broader picture of inequalities in later life. If those retirees who most need to supplement their incomes in later life are not able to find suitable paid work, unretirement may be part of processes that increase inequalities in income between older people.

The findings are also worrying in the context of skills shortages currently faced by British industry, which are predicted to be exacerbated over the coming years. By 2022, the skills gap is expected to reach 7.5 million vacancies. Government and business should not forget about the experience and skills of recently retired workers who are often ready and keen to be re-engaged in the workforce. These workers may need more support and legislation to protect and promote their rights to work more flexibly to take into account their preferences and also the fact that they may be caring for grandchildren and other family members.

Specifically, the government could improve flexible working legislation by providing employees with the right to request flexible working from the start of the job application process, rather than waiting 26 weeks from the beginning of employment. Since older employees are less likely to be offered training, and are less likely to take it up, employers could monitor access to training and development by age as well as proactively offering training to employees and being open to additional training requests.

Where older people manage to find new jobs, it is a result of their own efforts and networks, and not because they accessed effective support. Older people reported in focus groups that Job Centres in particular provided poor guidance and assistance. Government could consider how to develop age-appropriate support services and guidance in Job Centres. Both government and employers could offer mid-life career reviews.

In the long term, we need to work towards a society in which unretirement becomes a positive story for all. Business and wider society stand to benefit from the ambition, experience and skills older people bring to the labour market. For financial and other reasons, many older people want to be in paid work. Currently, they are all too often left out.

Returns to work after retirement: a prospective study of unretirement in the United Kingdom is research by Loretta Platts, Laurie Corna, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough and is published in Ageing and Society.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

Breastfeeding and the 24/7 economy: can evenings play a unique role?

Making it easier for women to get back to work after having children has been the ambition of successive UK Governments. A £5m career break returner scheme was launched in the budget just a few weeks ago, with the Prime Minister telling the parenting website Mumsnet that it was neither fair nor did it make economic sense, for women trying to get back into the workplace to find the doors closed to them. At the same time, the Government has acknowledged the considerable benefits to babies and mums of being breastfed. So what does this drive to get mums back to work mean for them, particularly if their job isn’t a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday affair? Afshin Zilanawala from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been looking at what working evenings, nights or weekends might mean for mums and children when it comes to breastfeeding to see if this should be factored into our thinking around helping women back to work.

In the last 50 years or so, many more women with children have gone back to work after having their children. The same time period has seen a huge growth in the service sector and it is these two economic changes, which have been credited to the growing phenomenon of nonstandard work i.e working evenings, nights, or weekend shifts. A 2008 report showed that nearly a third of UK employees work evening, night or rotating shifts and that 1/5 work on the weekends. About a quarter of employed mothers work evenings, nights, or rotating shifts and about 18% of these mothers work on the weekends.

In that time, anecdotal information around the benefits and importance of breastfeeding to a child’s early development and mother’s mental and physical health have been supported by an ever growing and increasingly compelling body of evidence. In short, children who are breastfed develop physically and mentally more quickly and are less likely to develop infections or be obese, whilst mums are less likely to suffer post natal depression or develop breast/ovarian cancer.

Given all that, it would be useful for policy makers and parents to better understand whether any particular work patterns or schedules are more or less associated with women breastfeeding and for us all to get to grips with how working nonstandard hours may complicate work and family life, and may constrain time with children that relates to their health and development. That’s where this research comes in.

Dual potential: opportunities or costs?

When I set out to look at this, it wasn’t easy to imagine a straightforward answer to this question of say whether working evening shifts might be more or less associated with a mum having started to breast feed or how long she breastfed compared with someone who worked weekends. There seemed to be a dual potential for each shift to make it harder or easier depending on how you looked at it.

Evening or night work might make it difficult to schedule consistent breastfeeding patterns. However, at the same time, these shifts might allow for dad or another caregiver to supply pumped milk if a mum is working odd hours.

Using information collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of children born at the turn of the century, we were able to look at more than 17,000 mothers and their children.

Mums were asked if they had ever tried to breastfeed and, if so, for how long. From this and informed by the UK infant feeding guidelines at the time of the survey, which recommended exclusive breastfeeding for 4–6 months, we were able to create 2 month bands for different breastfeeding duration e.g. ‘intermediate’ (terminated breastfeeding after 2 months but before 4 months).

When their babies were 9 months old, mothers who were working provided information about the sorts of shifts they worked and how often they worked them.

Breastfeeding and work

Nearly 70 per cent of mothers breastfed their child. Thirty percent of them stopped breastfeeding before 2 months and one-third breastfed for at least 4 months. About half of mothers were not working at the time of the survey, nearly 30 per cent were working a standard shift and one in five was working nonstandard shifts.

Looking more closely at nonstandard work, it was possible to see the prevalence of the different types of shifts.

An interesting thing to emerge when we looked just at work patterns and breastfeeding was that women who worked evenings were 70 per cent more likely than women who were unemployed to have breastfed at all. They were also more likely to breastfeed than women who worked other non standard shift patterns i.e. night or weekend shifts.

Women who worked evening shifts were also more likely than their unemployed counterparts to continue breastfeeding across all the different ‘duration bands’ including the longest. They were still also more likely than their peers doing other non standard patterns of work to be breastfeeding i.e. night, weekend and overnight shifts.

Evenings and breastfeeding

So what is it about evening work that appears to be ‘compatible’ with starting and continuing to breast feed (or vice versa?) Perhaps mothers working evening shifts have positive breastfeeding experiences and so keep on breastfeeding and working. Perhaps supportive and flexible working arrangements influence the decision to breastfeed for longer. Evening schedules perhaps have a less disruptive effect on sleep patterns than irregular or night shifts, leaving women feeling more able to manage a job and caring for/breastfeeding their children.

So perhaps evening work schedules have something of a unique role to play in child and maternal health when it comes to helping women back to work without losing the many benefits for them and their children of breastfeeding. There’s a lot more that needs disentangling here, but, nevertheless, food for thought!

Maternal Nonstandard Work Schedules and Breastfeeding Behaviors is research by Afshin Zilanawala and is published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Downshifting and long-term part-time work could be key to a healthy retirement

A secure, comfortable and healthy retirement is something most of us aspire to. But, as we live longer, we are all being encouraged to work later, increasingly well into our late 60s, so what might that mean for those aspirations, particularly the desire to be fit and healthy? Whilst the number crunchers have done their homework about how the sums add up around the available money to support more retired people for longer, very little is known about how working longer will impact on our health and what the knock on personal, societal and economic costs of that might be. Peggy McDonough at the University of Toronto, together with colleagues at UCL and Kings College, has been using US data to get a clearer picture of what the latter part of working life and health look like for men and women. Here she explains the research and why flexible working policies, particularly those concerning part-time work, could be key to ensuring a healthy retirement is a reality as well as an aspiration.

Across the developed world falling birth rates and the so-called ‘baby-boom’ cohort’s retirement have raised the spectre of unsustainable State pension costs. This has led to a range of reforms, many of which have seen a rise in the age at which we can collect State Pension. In the UK in 2020, men and women will have to wait till they are 66; this will rise to 68 by 2028. In the States, the age will be 67 in 2027. In addition, other incentives to work longer and disincentives to take our pensions earlier have been trialled or introduced.

What we don’t know much about is what the health consequences are of stepping up the workplace participation of older adults. Will working longer make our health better or worse? And what if those consequences undermine other social and economic goals, such as those around wellbeing and inequality? In addition, are there differences in the way these things play out for women and men?

Research to date has tended to focus on retirement as an exact or single point in time, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the more complex things happening during the run up to and after retirement. Findings are also ambiguous and it’s not clear whether retiring early, partial retirement or working longer is generally associated with better health.

Our research looks across a much longer period, viewing retirement more as a project that unfolds over time and drilling down into what is going on as we move from the ‘family- and career-building years’ to the ‘frailty years of old age’. This way we hope to get a better and more nuanced picture of how our work and our health interact over this part of our life and get some pointers about what seems to work best when it comes to staying as healthy as possible into the Third Age.

Patterns of work

Our data come from the Health and Retirement Study, which has collected information from more than 25,000 Americans aged 50 + since 1992. Working with the original cohort, all of whom were born between 1931-41, we examined the working lives and health of some 6,500 men and women over 18 years.

It was interesting to see that only 14 per cent of the men in our study followed a ‘conventional’ path involving full-time work until retirement at around 65 years of age. More of them (21 per cent) acted in line with recent policy initiatives and worked longer or did the complete opposite and retired in their early 60s (18 per cent). Slightly less than one in ten men stayed working but shifted from full to part-time work; it was rare for men to have had a substantial period of the time in part-time work.

Less than half as many women (10 per cent) worked full-time throughout the period. They were three times more likely than the men in the study to have worked part-time from the outset. The largest proportion, double that for men, was not working across this period, but, if they were, they were more likely to retire around the age of 62 than 65.

Health at 70

 When we took into consideration a range of other background factors, like education, income, marital status, and minority background, we could start to get a picture of the most ‘advantaged’ people in terms of health.

One group of men stood out: those who downshifted from full-time to part-time work around age 65 had the lowest chance of being in poor health at age 70. Women were slightly different: being in work (either part-time or full-time) was associated with the best health, as was retiring in the early to mid 60s. Women in long-term part-time work were especially advantaged.

At the other end of the spectrum, men retired early or worked very little in middle age were more likely to have poor health than others. The same was true for women.

 Downshifting is key for men; long-term part-time work, for women

Whilst it was interesting to note that long-term part-time work for men was not linked with better health for men when it was for women, we think that is probably because for this generation, women (traditionally caregiver) would have perhaps engaged in part-time work through choice, whilst for men (traditionally breadwinner) the reason may have been linked to earlier poor health.

Our research certainly provides a more detailed picture of how people’s working lives pan out in their fifties and sixties and shows quite clearly that men who are able to shift to part-time work in their 60s are most likely to have better health in their 70s whilst for women a long-term part-time arrangement seems to reap the most health benefits.

In short, it seems there may be considerable health benefits to part-time work but in ways that play out slightly differently for men and women. It should provoke interesting discussions among employers, unions, policy makers in the areas of employment and health and, of course workers themselves as they think about the sort of retirement they want and the options they have (or don’t have) when it comes to flexible working.

Given that less than 10 per cent of men and less than 5 per cent of women in our study followed these ‘optimum’ pathways for better health in their 70s, it’s an area that could serve as a real focus in the coming months, preferably before the pension reforms outlined earlier come into force.

Later-life employment trajectories and health is research by Peggy McDonough, Diana Worts, Laurie M. Corna, Anne McMunn, and Amanda Sacker and is published in the journal, Advances in Life Course Research.

Out of work and overweight: Think again.

There’s a widely held preconception that people who are out of work are overweight, perpetuated by the media and, indeed, reinforced by some academic studies. But recent robust evidence throws a whole new light on things and indicates that unemployed people are in fact much more likely to be underweight, and less likely to be overweight, than their peers who have not recently been unemployed. Amanda Hughes from the Institute for Social and Economic Research explains how she came to question narratives about benefit claimants being lazy and overweight and go on to undertake research she believes provides a more accurate picture.

While I was doing my PhD, I volunteered at a foodbank, and noticed that there were more people coming in who were painfully thin than too heavy. Some had not eaten that day or the day before. Others had walked for two hours to get there, because paying for a return bus journey was out of the question.

Of course, not all people who are out of work turn to food banks, and not all people who turn to foodbanks are unemployed. But that experience got me thinking: have researchers and public health officials been so concerned with obesity that they have missed a crucial part of the story? If weight loss or weight gain can occur during unemployment depending on personal circumstances, might there be an overlooked ‘U-shaped’ association of unemployment and body weight, with excess obesity and excess underweight among jobseekers?

We know that risk of dying is higher for jobseekers than for employed peers, and it is often assumed that increased overweight and obesity among jobseekers plays a role. But studies on the relationship of unemployment and body weight have been inconclusive; some document weight gain with unemployment, but others suggest weight loss. However, previous studies have compared only average effects – average change in body weight following job loss, or average differences between unemployed people and controls, and may have missed a more complicated ‘U-shaped’ association.

Working age BMI

Using Understanding Society, a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 UK households, my colleague Meena Kumari and I were able to look at the BMI (body mass index) of 10,737 working-age adults between 2010 and 2012.

What was different about our study, was that we did not assume unemployment would impact BMI in the same direction for everyone. Rather, we allowed for a simultaneously raised risk among jobseekers of both underweight and obesity, by comparing the probabilities of being underweight, overweight, and obese between current jobseekers, recent jobseekers, and people who had not been unemployed since the start of the survey (the control group). To isolate the impact of unemployment itself, we took into account other factors such as demographics, chronic health conditions and mental health, smoking and physical activity.

A small proportion (0.7 per cent) of the people in our study who were employed were classed as underweight (i.e. had a BMI below 18.5). But for those in our sample who were unemployed, the proportion shot up to almost 4 per cent. This pattern remained when we took into account factors such as their education, gender, smoking, overall health, physical activity and alcohol consumption.

Certain groups were especially at risk: there were more extreme effects for longer-term unemployed people, for men, and people from lower-income households, suggesting household reserves or the support of family members may act as a sort of buffer against weight-loss effects. At the same time, currently unemployed people were much less likely to be overweight than peers who had not recently been unemployed (29 per cent v 40 per cent).

We did find that unemployed people were more likely to be obese, perhaps suggesting changes in dietary quality following unemployment towards energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. However, this was only the case for non-smokers, which might reflect competing priorities between tobacco, food and other essentials for smokers on severely restricted budgets.

Quantitative evidence

Together, these results point to a complex picture in which jobseekers, depending on the complexities of individual lives, are at increased risk of both underweight and obesity, each with their own associated health risks.

The elevated underweight and reduced overweight among current jobseekers are quantitative evidence that many unemployed people are not eating enough in simple caloric terms. Despite the political importance of this question, evidence of this effect has so far been fairly anecdotal.

Our results make an important contribution to research trying to explain the increased risk of chronic illness and mortality for unemployed people – suggesting that, at least in contemporary Britain, being underweight may contribute to that much more than previously realised.

At the very least, I hope our evidence will be used to challenge preconceptions and debunk myths about unemployment. It has implications for the way politicians, journalists and the wider public perceive unemployment, and for anyone concerned with the health effects of being out of work.

Unemployment, underweight and obesity: Findings from Understanding Society is research by Amanda Hughes and Meena Kumari at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and published in the journal Preventive Health.

You can also read an article about this research in The Guardian.

Photo credit: At Work in the Capital Area Foodbank Warehouse, Geoff Livingston